I've been thinking over the last couple of days about the kinds of bits of history that interest me. History was never one of my strong subjects at school - I didn't like essay subjects, for a start, and leaned heavily in the STEM direction - but I am glad I did my half-GCSE in it, because it means I know a bunch of stuff about the Cold War that otherwise would probably not have come up.
My parents said "The Cold War? That's not history - we lived through that!" - and I see why it gives them "feeling-old" feels, because after all, the dissolution of the Soviet Union was only about three months before I was born. But this actually captures quite well the area of history that interests me - the personal and relatively recent. In much the same way that I find the cultural differences between UK and US, or between England and Scotland, fascinating, I really like learning about how things have changed just over the past five decades or so. My parents are in their mid-fifties, and have lived through an incredible amount of change - and that's awesome.
(I was never very close to my grandparents - I'd lost one before I was born, and another by the time I was five, and both my grandmothers lived in the order of a hundred miles away, which is quite far on a UK scale, and have now both, sadly, also passed away. Perhaps if they were still alive now (and not suffering from the horrifically painful experience that is dementia), as I get into my twenties, I would have thought about taking time to ask them a bit more about their lives, and that would expand my interests back another few decades.)
Last week, I found a documentary on BBC iPlayer about the building of the motorways. As in, in the fifties, motorways did not exist in Britain. To my nineties-born mind, this is an astonishing thought. No motorways. The first one was just eight miles long, and people went for drives to the motorway, as a destination in and of itself, to say that they had. There were no speed limits, and when the M1 was built, people kept burning up their engines because their cars hadn't been designed to handle seventy-odd miles of sheer speed. (Side note: the M1 was actually the second motorway, just to fuck with people looking back from the future - the first motorway was a segment of the M6.) The road signs that were designed when the M1 was built are the same road signs we see on the motorway today - because Jock Kinnier and Margaret Calvert actually sat down and designed them, and designed them well.
A couple of months ago, again on BBC iPlayer, I found the episode of Panorama that aired the day after the moon landing. This is so much more interesting watching than a modern documentary about the moon landing. Sure, a modern documentary would have had more footage - but that's the cool part! The day after the moon landing, they had the barest handful of information and a couple of images, and a dodgy satellite link to NASA that cut out as soon as their journalist started interviewing the man who knew things. The best part of the hour is BBC presenters and a panel of assorted somebodies making up a lot of rubbish about what the moon landing means for humanity - and that's really interesting. Not in and of itself - I can turn on the TV any time and see BBC presenters making up rubbish about what things mean - but because this is what you would have seen, at the time, when it was actually happening. My dad has sometimes mentioned how seriously exciting and inspiring the space race was, seen as a kid, in real-time, on the news, in black and white - and this doesn't seem to compare to watching educational videos in Physics lessons (while, on the news, in colour, we see NASA being defunded...)
What was it like, watching Jaws in the cinema? Was it actually scary? Watching 'classic' films for the first time in 2017 is a totally different experience, because I have extra decades of cinematic advancement altering the context for what I'm seeing. Jaws is hilarious to me, because I can see that the shark is made of rubber, and I have seen photo-realistic CGI sharks on my screen. The original Cybermen have me in side-splitting laughter, because they are wearing tinfoil hats with socks over their faces - but my mum remembers hiding behind the sofa, age 6, in terror when they came on screen. I watched The Good, The Bad and The Ugly with my dad, and enjoyed it despite its glacially slow pacing - but he first saw it in the cinema on a Saturday morning, when it was the coolest new thing. I've seen more James Bond parodies than original Bond films - and this changes how I will experience any original Bond film I watch. I saw the first Star Wars film as a cultural phenomenon, not a cool new sci-fi epic. What was it like, watching these things when they were new?
There are three popular, interlinked murder mystery series on ITV, set in the dreaming spires of Oxford - Morse, Lewis, and Endeavour. Morse was filmed (and set) in the 80s, and featured Inspector Morse and his sidekick Sergeant Lewis. Lewis is the spin-off, still running today, featuring the promoted Inspector Lewis, with sidekick Sergeant Hathaway. And Endeavour is the modern, period version - filmed today but set in the 60s, showing a young Morse before he made Inspector. I enjoyed them all - but Morse holds endlessly more fascination for me than Endeavour. I lived in Oxford for four years. Watching Lewis, I can say "ooh, I know that place!". Watching Morse, I can say "ooh, I know that place - but wow, it looked very different thirty years ago!". And watching Endeavour, I can say... "well, I know that place, but they've covered it up with set dressing to look like how they think the 60s were". I'm much more intrigued by the old-but-contemporary, than by the modern-historical.
(I was rereading Douglas Adams' The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul this week, and trying to visualise King's Cross and St Pancras as they are described in that book. In the eighties, King's Cross at night was "a bit rough", I've learned, which is bizarrely at odds with my own experiences of the swish and modern transport hub and the surrounding area. At the time the book was written, St Pancras had not been revitalised into the vibrant international station it is today. No Eurostar, no "please play me" pianos, no quirky art installations, no fancy boutiques. And in the book, Adams mentions the sight of five huge gasometers, framed by the station arch, which sent me down a rabbit hole of gasometer research. I knew what they were, and what they were for - and I knew that the ones north of King's Cross are currently in the middle of being turned into fancy modern flats and arts venues - but I didn't know that they were so utterly defunct, or how long they have been defunct, and I'd never thought about how it must have been to live within sight of a gas holder rising and falling every day. I've never seen an active gas holder - but they used to just be part of life. Isn't that weird? But, on the other hand, one of the bus routes Adams refers to still exists, and I could absolutely take it.)
I'm not sure where I'm going with this, other than demonstrating my affinity for the little details, the personal touches, and the small changes that you might not think about when there are big events and dates and names to learn. My mum used to record songs off the radio onto tape, and that's why she hates it when radio DJs talk over the beginning or end of tracks. My parents watched Monty Python when it was new and outrageous, rather than a comedy standard that gets quoted ad infinitum. Tignes ski resort looks almost identical in my holiday photos from this year and my parents' holiday photos from 1987 - apart from the ski lifts, which look much dodgier in theirs, and the ski clothes, which are a lot more alarmingly eighties. I suppose we are already seeing some of the bits and pieces that will be fascinating details of change within my life to future generations - "I remember when the Nokia 3310 was cutting-edge", and all those other things you see on "I was born in the 1990s" Facebook pages.
Cultural context and cultural shifts are intriguing and interesting, and, please, BBC, keep making bizarrely specific history documentaries, and airing your archive episodes.